Of Whales and Rocks


Nathaniel Philbrick's book In the Heart of the Sea about the whaleship Essex is now a movie by the same name. Directed by Ron Howard, it is not a retelling of Melville's Moby-Dick, as it is erroneously described sometimes, but the very different story of the real sinking of a ship by a large (and not albino white) sperm whale that inspired parts of Melville's novel.

In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the Essex which left Nantucket in 1819 for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard in search of whales. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale.

The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival.

Philbrick has also written a version of the story for younger readers called Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex.

Since Philbrick wrote Why Read Moby-Dick?, it is clear that he is a fellow admirer of Mr. Melville's novel. I reread that novel or at least parts of it, every year. It has become a kind of ritual when "I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off." This might happen in winter or when I feel spring nearby and I feel it "high time to get to sea as soon as I can" - or at least set sail on the Pequod again, doomed as it may be.

Another book by Philbrick that I have read is Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War and I agree with him that The Rock is the a very disappointing piece of American tourism.

I saw that rock on a road trip I made back in 1971 and it was truly underwhelming. Now that I read the story behind that hunk of Dedham granodiorite glacial erratic, it makes more sense that I felt that way. That doesn't mean the rock is unimportant though.

It was pretty much legend from the start that said that the rock at the foot of Cole's Hill was the one where the Pilgrims landed in 1620. There were plans to build a wharf at the Pilgrim's landing site in 1741.

Thomas Faunce, 94 years old and the town record keeper, identified the rock that his father said was the first solid land the Pilgrims set foot upon.  Actually, the Pilgrims first landed near the site of modern Provincetown in November 1620 and then moved on to Plymouth.

That initial settlement was built on nearby Leyden Street leading up toward Burial Hill.

In 1774, they decided to move the rock and in transporting it in a wagon, it fell off and split into two.
They left the bottom half behind at the wharf and relocated the top to the town's meeting-house.

Over the years, they built a structure to house Plymouth Rock (well, part of it) and eventually added a gate to stop souvenir hunters who had been hacking off parts of it. The upper portion of the rock was also brought back to the wharf and the date "1620" was carved into the rock.

P_09 Plymouth - Plymouth Rock's Canopy

In 1920, the rock was relocated again and the waterfront rebuilt with a waterfront promenade behind a low seawall, in such a way that when the rock was returned to its original site, it would be at water level so that you could see the tide-washed rock.

Parts of the Rock were taken, bought and sold over the years, and about one-third of the top portion remains. Today there are pieces in Pilgrim Hall Museum as well as in the Patent Building in the Smithsonian.

Alexis De Tocqueville, a Frenchman traveling throughout the United States, wrote in 1835:
"This Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns in the Union. Does this sufficiently show that all human power and greatness is in the soul of man? Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic."
I find myself reading more non-fiction these days than ever before and Philbrick's book is also good about describing what that first Thanksgiving was really like and why the Pilgrims never called themselves pilgrims.

Napoleon Bonaparte said that “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” I agree.

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